The origin of The Academy of Muses is singular: Professor Raffaele Pinto invited director José Luis Guerin to film one of his seminars on classical Italian literature at the University of Barcelona. During this seminar, Pinto sketched the basis for a project about updating the figure of the female muse for the contemporary world. The interventions made by various students suggested ideas to Guerin about developing fictional characters. However, the shooting was always treated as an experiment, with no obligation to deliver a finished product—it was a work-in-progress, with no producer attached, and a technical crew comprising only Guerin (operating a domestic digital camera), and his sound recordist.

Desire is not just the literal (and literary) object of study in Pinto’s seminar; it is the force that propels the whole film. The idea of pedagogy as a circulation of desire—between teacher, students, and texts—is one of the key concepts in The Academy of Muses. This current of seduction spreads in multiple directions and is beautifully captured in the classroom scenes, but it also functions as the trigger generating the central, fictional conflict: Rosa (Rosa Delor Muns), Raffaele’s wife, starts to feel that her husband’s teaching philosophy is a threat to their marriage.

THE ACADEMY OF MUSES
'The Academy of Muses'

The geometry of triangular desire is a theme studied in class as foundational to classical poetry (often by way of adulteresses in extra-marital affairs), and multiplied by the film in all possible ways. Inside the fiction, love triangles proliferate and often overlap, with a third party always disputing the love interest of one member of the couple. Meanwhile literature itself and Guerin's camera each act as third points of these triangles—which instead of obstructing desire only enhances it, adding a sublime dimension to this mundane geometry.

The constant shifting of tones, languages, and genres in The Academy of Muses is sustained by a tight structure that divides the film into contrasting halves. Both halves feature four types of scenes: the classroom sequences with a large group of people; the meetings between students—Mireia (Mireia Iniesta), Emanuela (Emanuela Forgetta), Carolina (Carolina Llacher) and Patricia (Patricia Gil)—arranged always as two-way conversations; domestic scenes between Rosa and her husband; and the intimate encounters between the teacher and one of his students, often filmed in a car. If the first half of The Academy of Muses burns with the flame and possibility of adventure, the second half becomes darker, heavier: the two trips to Italy made by Raffaele and his students have a very distinct nature but a similar outcome, rendering this "academy of muses" not just possibly unfeasible, but maybe also undesirable.

THE ACADEMY OF MUSES
'The Academy of Muses'

Guerin has often said of this project that he prefers to talk about mise-en-situation rather than mise-en-scène. The film is built on conversations, but its scenes weren't scripted; all dialogue fully belongs to the non-professional actors who improvised it, working from situations set by the director once he'd examined the previous day’s material. While it is evident that Guerin has a fine intuition for dramatic conflict, and for planting the conditions that can trigger it, many scenes evolve in ways that seem strictly impossible to predict. In terms of montage, Guerin’s choices about when to start and end each scene are breathtakingly precise. Always one feels how completely the film hinges on this adventure of language carried by the actors—without ever falling into the trap of too-mechanical shot/reverse-shot technique. Ellipses play an important role in withholding information and plotting the intrigue, and the punctuation of internal cuts provides many scenes with powerful, rhythmic caesuras.

Maybe mise-en-scène, in its most conventional sense, is not the best tool with which to approach The Academy of Muses; nonetheless, there’s still a lot of fine work done with the arrangement of bodies in the frame. In one of his classes, Raffaele invokes an episode from the fifth chapter of La Vita Nuova: Dante, in a church, looks at Beatrice, who sits far away from him, while another woman, positioned between them but in the same line of vision, serves as the screen that conceals the true object of desire. This lesson ends with a shot that reproduces the same spatial configuration from the teacher’s perspective. In the scenes between Raffaele and Rosa at home, they are positioned at different depths of the shot; they speak facing in opposite directions and avoid looking at each other—so strong is the distance between them, so irreconcilable their ideas. These scenes vividly contrast with the teacher-student encounters in the car, where bodies and gazes enjoy their proximity. When Raffaele dismisses the poem written by Carolina, the camera shows her growing disappointment, using close-ups in which half of her face is blocked by his profile; later, when she discusses this incident with Emanuela, a similar type of framing enhances the identification of the latter with Raffaele’s point of view.

THE ACADEMY OF MUSES
'The Academy of Muses'

In essence, The Academy of Muses substitutes the classical formulation of mise-en-scène—bodies moving dynamically through space—with the emotion effected by language upon bodies and faces. Through their commitment to words, the actors restlessly take us from heaven to hell, from the heights of delirious comedy to the abysses of pain, anger, and frustration. Not to mention the silences, which are among the most poignant moments experienced in recent cinema: on one side, the ecstatic silence after a shared experience of communion (the ending of the encounter between Raffaele and Emanuela in the car); on the other, silence as the deepest wound left by language once it has been exhausted.

In The Academy of Muses, there’s a double displacement—from the social to the private, and from theory to practice—performed by language. Despite the vibrant and passionate confrontations carried out in the classroom, it’s still a social space with rules and constraints—certainly, with room for subjectivity, but still very much wrapped in proper intellectual and ideological conventions. It’s in the private spaces, in the one-to-one conversations, that the strongest and most intense feelings are expressed without boundaries, fully open, fully naked, proud in their irrationality. Similarly, in passing from theory to practice, language has to operate another adjustment; it must account for all the variables and consequences conveniently left out or forgotten—as when Rosa reminds her husband that he has just used the word love for the first time to refer to their marriage, thus opening up an analytical, critical dimension of language that contrasts with its purely creative side.

The Academy of Muses finally reveals itself as a film about this paradox of language, which is both a prison—“We can’t escape from language,” Raffaele says to his students—and a perpetual line of flight.